The PEN Foundation awarded the PEN / Faulkner Award to Imbolo Mbue for her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers. Announced yesterday, the prize recognizes the best work of fiction published by an American in a calendar year. Mbue’s book follows a pair of ambitious Cameroonians who move to New York at the beginning of the Great Recession.
The past decade has seen a spate of great novels about African immigrants making lives for themselves on other continents. Here are five, linked to their excerpted Booklist reviews.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
To the women in the hair-braiding salon, Ifemelu seems to have everything a Nigerian immigrant in America could desire, but the culture shock, hardships, and racism she’s endured have left her feeling like she has “cement in her soul.” Americanah is a courageous, world-class novel about independence, integrity, community, and love and what it takes to become a “full human being.”
Blue White Red, by Alain Mabanckou
Mabanckou’s timely novel, originally published in French in 1998, offers a unique slant on the illegal-immigrant experience—that of young African men migrating to large cities in the countries that formerly ruled their lands, dreaming of making it big and returning home as wealthy and respected benefactors. Mabanckou’s provocative novel probes the many facets of the “migration adventure,” including the shame that accompanies migrants home when their foreign sojourn ends in failure.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
This sometimes painful novel by Ghanaian author Gyasi traces, through the stories of two main families in alternating chapters proceeding chronologically, the history of Ghanaian and American civilization from the eighteenth century to the present, in Africa (where one branch of the family initially stays) and America (where the other goes).
How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu
Jonas is the child of Ethiopian immigrants who’d separated early in their marriage and reunited later when his father, Yosef, finally immigrated to America, specifically Peoria, Illinois. Jonas’ narration alternates between the dissolution of his own marriage and observations of a trip back to the Midwest to imagine the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. Mengestu offers a similarly languid yet emotionally charged unwinding of relationships amid the turmoil of immigration and cultural adjustment
Open City, by Teju Cole
Nigerian immigrant Julius, a young graduate student studying psychiatry in New York City, has recently broken up with his girlfriend and spends most of his time dreamily walking around Manhattan. The majority of Open City centers on Julius’ inner thoughts as he rambles throughout the city, painting scenes of both what occurs around him and past events that he can’t help but dwell on.